Frontier Psychiatrist

The Decemberists’ January: Portland in New York

Posted on: February 4, 2011

The Decemberists at The Beacon Theatre


Portland, Oregon is making every effort to be involved with my life.  Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein want me to watch a show about it.  Some think it would be fun to live there (again).  And the Portland-based Decemberists made sure that their three night run at the Beacon Theater felt as much like home as possible, from the glowing fir-tree backdrop to the cheerful opening remarks from Sam Adams, their hometown mayor (seriously, laid back Portland elected a beer mascot mayor).  Mayor Adams invited the audience to “imagine standing in the Pacific Northwest in a pretty nice parka.”  The well-mannered Decemberists shouted “thanks Sam” and eased into a set that heavily favored their new album, The King Is Dead. On the second night, the Decemberists took pains to revisit some of their earlier, lengthy cuts that highlight the band’s development and some of the quirky themes that have made previous albums memorable.

To start, the band reached back over seven years to the nearly 10 minute “California One/Youth and Beauty Brigade” which starkly captured the band’s shift from obscurity to now (perhaps) indie-pop mainstream with the charge: “calling all bedwetters,” the “light loafered, and the bored bench-warmers,” the “castaways and cut-out” to join the youth and beauty brigade.  In the Decemberists’ Portland, all are welcome and popular.

The Decemberists – “California One/Youth and Beauty Brigade”

“The King Is Dead” doesn’t fully turn on the band’s 19th Century nostalgia.  Inland sea chantey “Rox in the Box” recreates troubles mining in Butte, Montana and featured lively violin solos from Sara Watkins (formerly of Nickel Creek, who played the entire show).   Indeed, the most rousing moments of the night played-out in the band’s retro-cheek numbers “The Infanta,” “The Chimbley Sweep” and “The Mariner’s Revenge” with requests that the audience scream with “a little panache – a little chutzpah” (it seems there’s chutzpah even in Portland).  “The Infanta” in particular was remarkably recreated with powerful percussion, keyboards and amplified guitars that transformed “Picaresque’s” royal procession into a display of imperial dominance.  As no surprise, “The Infanta” transitioned to “16 Military Wives,” which was re-imagined with funky jazz piano opening bars and extra mocking string twangs with references to “the anchorperson on tv.”

The Decemberists – “The Infanta”

Throughout the night, it was unmistakable that Colin Meloy and his distinct nasal voice was the star of the show.  For the most part, he stood front and center, with the rest of the band routinely receding into the dark during light changes.  He happily crawled, squirmed, kicked, danced (sort of) and leaned into the audience to encourage sing-alongs.  He chirped, “so you’re all surviving winter, enjoying New York, post grad trying to make it happen?” and wondered aloud, “You guys are all unemployed musical theater actors?  How many are generally unemployed?  Oh, my suggestion to you, start a band.”  The attention on Meloy, however, detracted from the full experience of “Crane Wife 1 and 2” and “Crane Wife 3” where he remained in a solitary spotlight much longer than necessary as his bandmates crescendoed in support.

Colin Meloy


Although “The King Is Dead” is the most pop-friendly of the Decemberists’ work (including “Calamity Song” which sounds suspiciously discarded from R.E.M.’s “Accelerate” sessions) it stays true to the band’s thematic approach to crafting albums – in this case, capturing changing seasons in “January Hymn,” “Don’t Carry It All” and “June Hymn.”  All three, dealing with loneliness and not taking things too seriously through different moments of the year, struck a timely chord at the Beacon.  We all were re-living a childhood in snow, with all our teens in tow.  And so we sang, “Oh January Oh.”

The Decemberists – “January Hymn”


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